Brendan Smart, 02-28-06

Snowboarder missing after avalanche at Hatcher Pass

Hazardous conditions keep rescuers from searching

Anchorage Daily News staff

Published: February 28, 2006

HATCHER PASS Hazardous conditions kept searchers at bay Tuesday on Marmot Mountain, where an avalanche just before 3:44 p.m. swept away an Anchorage snowboarder.

Three hours later, the missing man was presumed dead, said trooper Sgt. Craig Allen at the scene.

Jill Fredston of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center surveyed the mountainside from a troopers helicopter at 5:35 p.m. and declared the area too dangerous for rescuers to set foot on the slope, according to authorities at the scene.

Park ranger Kym Miller said searchers planned to return early Wednesday and set off explosive charges to provoke an avalanche and thereby reduce the risk. Fredston recommended a bomb-like device dropped from a helicopter.

Two friends of the 23-year-old missing snowboarder told authorities they watched as he disappeared into the snow slide. The friends searched with a probe, avalanche beacons and their snowshoes, authorities said. One left the mountain to call 911 for help and then returned up the mountain, Allen said.

"These guys definitely put the right rescue plan into operation," Fredston said.

She said they spent a significant amount of time looking for their friend before someone left to call for help

The slide occurred on the east side of the pass at the 1,000-foot level, above the Mother Lode lodge, according to troopers.

Troopers, two Alaska State Park rangers and the troopers helicopter Helo I were joined by a member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, two dogs and handlers from Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs and Fredston, according to troopers. Matanuska-Susitna Borough emergency services were also on hand.

The lost snowboarder owned an avalanche beacon, but his friends were unsure whether he carried it with him Tuesday or whether he had turned it on, Miller said.

Troopers withheld the lost man's name while his family was notified.

Rangers earlier this month warned of hazardous conditions on the slopes of Hatcher Pass and signs of recent slides were evident there Tuesday.

The Anchorage man is the latest in a string of avalanche victims this year.

A Feb. 12 slide partially buried a snowboarder and his dog on the same slope.

Snowmobiler Richard Strick Jr. was caught in an avalanche near Pass Fork in the Alaska Range on Feb. 14. His body was recovered 10 days later.

Strick, 46, a longtime Iditarod Sled Dog Race volunteer from McGrath, was leading a line of snowmachines headed for Rainy Pass when the avalanche hit. The snowmachiners were blazing a path for the Iditarod.

Brian Mulvehill, 32, of Anchorage perished in an avalanche Feb. 8 on Flattop Mountain, near Anchorage, while snowshoeing with a friend.

On Jan. 3, 30-year-old skier Joel Schihl of Anchorage died in an avalanche on Raggedtop Mountain near Girdwood.



Anchorage man buried in snow in Hatcher Pass

AVALANCHE: Friends saw Brendan Smart disappear into slide. He is presumed dead.

By ANDREW WELLNER and JOE DITZLER Anchorage Daily News

Published: March 1, 2006

HATCHER PASS -- Hazardous conditions Tuesday night kept searchers at bay on Marmot Mountain, where an afternoon avalanche swept away an Anchorage snowboarder who was in the area with friends.

Alaska State Troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson identified the snowboarder as Brendan Smart, 24, who was presumed dead after he was buried beneath a deep layer of snow at Hatcher Pass, about 55 miles north of Anchorage.

Authorities at the scene had not determined Tuesday night whether anything specific had triggered the avalanche, though rangers earlier in February had warned of hazardous conditions in the area and signs of recent slides were evident Tuesday.

Jill Fredston of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center surveyed the mountainside from a troopers helicopter about 5:35 p.m. and declared the area too dangerous for rescuers to set foot on the slope, according to authorities at the scene.

Park ranger Kym Miller said searchers planned to return early today and set off explosive charges to provoke an avalanche and thereby reduce the risk. Fredston recommended a bomblike device dropped from a helicopter.

Two friends who had been with Smart told authorities they watched as he disappeared into the snowslide. The friends, wearing snowshoes, searched with a probe and tried to pick up a signal with their avalanche beacons, authorities said. One left the mountain to call 911 for help and then went back up to continue searching, trooper Sgt. Craig Allen said at the scene.

"These guys definitely put the right rescue plan into operation," Fredston said.

She said they spent a significant amount of time looking for their friend before one of them left to call for help.

The slide occurred on the east side of the pass at the 1,000-foot level, above the Mother Lode lodge, according to troopers.

The area has been the site of previous avalanches, Wilkinson said.

"This was a kind of avalanche known as a terrain trap, where everything collapses down into a ravine," he said. "It's a place that's had avalanches come down and cover the road there."

Troopers, two Alaska State Parks rangers and the troopers' helicopter Helo I were joined by a member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, two dogs and handlers from Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, and Fredston, according to troopers. Matanuska-Susitna Borough emergency services were also on hand.

Smart owned an avalanche beacon, but his friends were unsure whether he carried it with him Tuesday or whether he had turned it on, Miller said.

The Anchorage man is the latest in a string of avalanche victims this year.

A Feb. 12 slide partially buried a snowboarder and his dog on the same slope. Both survived.

Snowmobiler Richard Strick Jr. was caught in an avalanche near Pass Fork in the Alaska Range on Feb. 14. His body was recovered 10 days later.

Strick, 46, a longtime Iditarod Sled Dog Race volunteer from McGrath, was leading a line of snowmachines headed for Rainy Pass when the avalanche hit. The snowmachiners were blazing a path for the Iditarod.

Brian Mulvehill, 32, of Anchorage perished in an avalanche Feb. 8 on Flattop Mountain, near Anchorage, while snowshoeing with a friend.

On Jan. 3, 30-year-old skier Joel Schihl of Anchorage died in an avalanche on Raggedtop Mountain near Girdwood.

Daily News reporter Andrew Wellner can be reached at awellner@adn.com or 907-352-6710. Mat-Su editor Joseph Ditzler can be reached at jditzler@adn.com or 907-352-6715. The Associated Press contributed to this story.



Troopers suspend search for Hatcher Pass snowboarder

Avalanche: Twenty feet of snow, unsafe conditions halt efforts to find body.

By ANDREW WELLNER Anchorage Daily News

Published: March 3, 2006

WASILLA The Alaska State Troopers suspended its search Thursday morning for the body of missing snowboarder Brendan Smart on Marmot Mountain in Hatcher Pass.

Sgt. Craig Macdonald said the troopers have exhausted all options. Searchers on the mountain Wednesday used tracking devices that locate electronic equipment, search dogs and probe poles but failed to find Smart.

Troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said Wednesday's fruitless search, which didn't manage to narrow the 200-foot by 1,600-foot search area, combined with remaining avalanche danger, convinced the troopers to suspend the search.

"It just doesn't seem like there's anything to be gained by continuing the search at this point," Wilkinson said.

Troopers called off the search until "the conditions have changed or we have received some indication of a clue," Macdonald said.

"That's highly unlikely to happen in the next few months," he said.

The snow covering the area of the avalanche is estimated to be 20 feet deep.

Troopers have to wait for hanging snow to slide down the mountain, lessening the risk to searchers. Future slides, though, will add even more snow to the search area.

Smart, 24, was caught in an avalanche Tuesday while snowboarding down the slope. His friends summoned help at 3:44 p.m. after failing to locate Smart in the snow.

Smart was a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war who was discharged in March 2004, his mother said.

Smart's mother, Brenda Smart of Anchorage, said she's not faulting troopers for calling a halt to their search.

"The government can't pay for everything," she said. Which is why she is keen on the idea of a fundraiser.

She said she's left her brother and his wife in charge of the details, but wants to set up a fund to help continuing efforts to find her son and to fund avalanche training and awareness programs.

Barbara Smart, Brenda's sister-in-law, was with the group of approximately 30 volunteers waiting in Hatcher Pass Wednesday for word that the mountain was safe to start searching.

"Trucks were still driving up there, pulling snowmachines, and the surfaces are so dangerous and so volatile. People have to know," Barbara said.

Neither Brenda nor Barbara was certain Thursday what form the fundraiser would take.

For now, Brenda Smart is planning a party Sunday for friends and family members who want to come by and offer support. Originally, it was going to be a birthday party both for Brendan, who turned 24 on Feb. 23, and for one of the two men who were with him on the mountain Tuesday.

Besides the party, Smart said, it's still up in the air when or how she will commemorate her son. "We will not be having any services until I have my son's body back," she said.

Since the avalanche, Smart said, people have been stopping by the house or calling to offer support. Lately, she has needed all the support she can get, Smart said, even for the simple things.

Between fielding calls from concerned relatives and friends, and dealing with her grief, it took her two hours to make a cup of coffee Thursday morning.

Troopers remind backcountry enthusiasts that avalanche danger remains high in many parts of Alaska. Anyone planning a trip into the backcountry is asked to file a trip plan, take necessary beacons, probes and shovels, and know how to use them.

Contact reporter Andrew Wellner at awellner@adn.com or (907) 352-6710.



In limbo, loved ones celebrate life of avalanche victim

SEARCH CUT SHORT: Smart's soft-spoken nature belied adventurous spirit.

By ANDREW WELLNER Anchorage Daily News

Published: March 8, 2006

ANCHORAGE -- Friends and family remember Brendan Smart, a snowboarder presumed dead after a Feb. 28 avalanche at Hatcher Pass, as fun loving and intelligent but soft-spoken.

"He was always pretty crazy, willing to jump off of anything on a snowboard or a bike. He was a lot of fun to be around," said Kourtney Gheen, Smart's close friend.

"He was very intuitive, very wise," Smart's mother, Brenda Smart, said.

He was a man of few words, she said, but he had an adventurous side. She remembers him standing on the seat of his tricycle at age 4 and spelunking at age 8.

Gheen and his brother Michael Gheen were with Smart, 24, the day of the avalanche. They had looked at a few slopes before choosing Marmot Mountain.

"That area that we were at looked a little bit more stable than a lot of the other stuff," Kourtney Gheen said.

They hiked up the mountain and were making their first run of the day.

The group was snowboarding down the mountain when Smart veered off into a bowl, Gheen said. The snow in the bowl started to slide, bringing an avalanche down on Smart. Experts later determined Smart had triggered the avalanche, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Gheen and his brother, Michael, were following Smart. They watched the snow take him then went down into the slide area to look for him. Gheen said he stayed on the slope about 20 minutes before it started getting dark.

He decided it was time to "get a rescue started." Kourtney Gheen left his brother behind and hiked down to the road where he flagged down a passing car. He summoned help from an emergency phone in a nearby parking lot.

The Gheens waited on the road below the mountain that night until avalanche expert Jill Fredston declared the risk of further avalanches made the mountain too dangerous for a rescue operation. She postponed further operations until blasting crews could try to bring down snow and lessen the danger the next day.

Approximately 30 friends, family and rescuers waited on Palmer-Fishhook Road on Wednesday as Fredston and workers from the Alaska Department of Transportation flew in a private helicopter to place and detonate 10 explosive charges on the slope in an attempt to trigger avalanches. When Fredston announced a limited search was possible -- two rescue dogs and their handlers -- the crowd dispersed.

Kourtney Gheen was not among them. After he and his brother exhausted themselves searching Tuesday, he decided it would be better to stay home and rest.

"I'm still more in shock than anything. I still kind of can't believe it happened yet. It hasn't totally set in yet, I don't think," Gheen said.

Troopers called off further searches, citing unsafe snow conditions, Thursday on Marmot Mountain, where Smart's body remains buried in the avalanche debris field.

Gheen attended Chugiak High School. After he graduated, his parents moved to Valdez along with his younger brother Michael, who went to Valdez High School and there met Smart.

Smart, born in Anchorage, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation.

Brenda Smart said her son wanted to be in the military from the time he was a toddler. One of the first pictures she remembers him drawing was of a tank.

In the Marines, Smart was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as an engineer operating heavy equipment. He was deployed to Iraq as part of the force sent to begin Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Brenda Smart said her son helped breach defensive berms during the early combat phase of the war and that he helped get schools in his region up and running. Other than that, Brendan Smart didn't talk much about his time in the military.

Gheen said he didn't hear much from his friend while Smart was in Iraq.

"He came to visit and stuff, and we'd bike and stuff, but I didn't really talk to him when he was overseas," he said.

Smart returned home in 2003 and stopped nearly every day at the apartment Michael and Kourtney Gheen shared in Anchorage. The three went snowboarding and mountain biking in Turnagain Pass, Hatcher Pass, Powerline Pass, the Resurrection Trail and elsewhere.

Brendan Smart lived with his mother in a house he inherited in Anchorage after his father died. Brenda Smart held a party there Sunday afternoon in Brendan's honor. Friends and relatives filtered in and out. Young people arrived in cars and on bicycles.

"That kid has touched so many lives," Brenda Smart said.

A knot of Brendan's friends stood around a fire in the backyard, drinking beer and chatting. Sgt. Craig Allen, the trooper in charge of last week's search and recovery operations, stopped by with a plate of bratwurst. Upstairs in the house, Brenda looked through photo albums with friends and family and told stories about her son.

Stories like the one she shared over the phone last week about a child development specialist who approached her in the Anchorage airport when Brendan was a baby. The specialist had noticed the child watching a ceiling fan with complete fascination for hours.

"Please don't think this is strange, but can I talk to you about your baby?" the specialist asked.

It was unusual to see a baby with such a long attention span, he told her. Brenda Smart said her son's curiosity with mechanical things carried through to his adult life. She said he could fix anything and was very good with tools.

"He studied things from the moment he came out of me," she said.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Andrew Wellner may be reached at awellner@adn.com. or 352-6710.

Snowboarder's body recovered

BRENDAN SMART: Feb. 28 avalanche killed, buried Iraq vet.

By JOSEPH DITZLER, Anchorage Daily News

May 31, 2006

Brendan Smart

WASILLA -- Brenda Smart helped carry the litter bearing the body of her son Monday out of Hatcher Pass, 91 days after an avalanche swept the young snowboarder away and buried him.

"It was beautiful. I just love that I was able to carry my son's body back out of there," Brenda Smart said by phone from Anchorage. "I just had the biggest smile on my face that we were able to go get him and to be able to help."

A snowboarder found Brendan Smart's body on Sunday, according to Alaska State Troopers. His mother said she returned home from a lasagna dinner Sunday evening and saw a message on her answering machine.

She knew what it was before listening, she said.

Brendan Smart, 24, a former Marine and Iraq vet, died Feb. 28 snowboarding down Marmot Mountain. He was with two friends. Authorities at the time said the snowboarders probably kicked off the avalanche inadvertently.

No search took place after initial efforts to locate Smart. Avalanche experts deemed the slope too unstable even after Brenda Smart's employer, attorney Wayne Ross of Anchorage, paid for a helicopter to drop explosive charges and render the slope safe for search-and-rescue teams.

Brenda Smart said her son was buried initially by at least 25 feet of snow.

She and a friend, Skipper Shimek of Anchorage, accompanied a trooper and a team of rescuers to the pass Monday. She said a trooper's helicopter on its way to help lift the body was diverted elsewhere.

"I just said, heck, let's go climb up and help carry him down," she said. "So we did."

A crew brought Brendan down from the snowfield; his mother helped carry him the rest of the way to the road.

She didn't know the name of the snowboarder who found Brendan, at last, but said he knew the area well. He happened across her son's snowboard, his body beneath, and covered it with more snow until he could alert authorities, she said.

The avalanche at 3:44 p.m. on Feb. 28 on the east side of Hatcher Pass was about 200 feet wide and fell 1,600 feet, according to troopers. Smart carried a locator beacon in his backpack, but the device was not turned on, said trooper's spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

"It just breaks my heart to say, when you go out on one of these kinds of things, you need to have the equipment, and you need to have it operating," he said.

His mother said Smart was a heavy equipment operator in the Marine Corps and helped breach sand berms during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He had a love of the outdoors that included mountain biking as well as snowboarding. She said a friend of his planned a memorial disc golf tournament, another activity her son enjoyed.

Midnight Sun Brewing Co. of Anchorage made a batch of Corporal Strong Ale in honor of Brendan Smart, and raised $1,000 for his mother in sales of $10 growlers, she said.

Brendan's friends remembered his mother with visits, dinners and cookouts while she waited to bring Brendan home. On Mother's Day, they stoked a fire pit in the backyard of her Anchorage home, cooked elk meat and drank beer, she said.

Brenda Smart thanked the troopers, park rangers and members of search and rescue teams that turned out to help find her son, retrieve his body and who didn't forget her as she waited three months.

She said but she plans a military service and to cremate her son's remains. Evergreen Memorial Chapel is handling the arrangements, she said.

Contact Mat-Su editor Joseph Ditzler at 1-907-352-6715 or jditzler@adn.com.



Snowboarder recalled with tears and joy

AVALANCHE: The Iraq vet was buried in snow on a Hatcher Pass run.

By ANDREW WELLNER Anchorage Daily News, June 22, 2006 at 03:33 AM

HATCHER PASS -- Family and friends gathered Wednesday to remember Brendan Smart, the Anchorage snowboarder killed February in an avalanche, in the place where it happened.

A U.S. Marine Corps honor guard from Elmendorf Air Force Base's reserve battalion stood on a hill above the last parking lot before the Hatcher Pass Lodge, played taps and offered a tribute to Smart, an Iraq war veteran who served in the Marines as a heavy-equipment operator from 2002 to 2004.

Pastor Tracy Simmons of Christ Community Church in Anchorage and a friend of Brendan's mother, Brenda Smart, gave the eulogy, starting just after 10:30 a.m.

Simmons said Smart would be remembered for his "protective encouragement, one-liners and gentle way of wisdom."

Still, he said, in life "you knew not to mess with Brendan."

The young man's body lay in deep snow for three months until melting allowed for his recovery May 28.

Brenda Smart received two American flags Wednesday. One came from an appreciative Marine Corps, the other from Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who said it flew at the request of Gov. Frank Murkowski over the state Capitol in Brendan's honor.

Rose Roetman-Cramer stood behind her white Subaru station wagon after the service. She's been back and forth between Brenda's home in Anchorage and her own in Valdez since the February avalanche and plans to spend most of June with Brenda.

She was pleased with the service, happy that so many people who knew Brendan made the trip.

At one point during the ceremony, as she hugged Brenda, Roetman-Cramer said she had a flashback to a similar embrace during Brendan's birth. Roetman-Cramer midwifed the birth, which came after Brenda literally crawled from her tiny, unheated, one-room Anchorage cabin to Roetman-Cramer's house.

Brendan, 24 when he died, graduated from Chugiak High School, she said, but spent most of his high school years living with her in Valdez.

She said Brendan had traveled a lot as a young man and wanted to settle down for high school.

"Of all the places that he'd been, I guess where he wanted to go was Valdez," she said.

One of her biggest regrets, she said, was that she never managed to connect Brendan with his father, Daniel Jon Wilk. Brendan and Roetman-Cramer had made plans for a reunion after Brendan graduated high school. His enlistment with the Marines put that on hold, and Wilk died before Brendan had left the Corps.

Roetman-Cramer knew Wilk well. She worked with him on road construction projects and as first mate on a fishing boat Wilk captained. She thinks he would have been proud of his son.

The crowd, almost 100 strong from all ages and walks of life, watched the service quietly, crying on each other's shoulders. Afterward, some passed around bottles of beer, mostly from the Midnight Sun Brewing Co., which brewed Corporal Strong Ale in honor of Brendan.

As he wrapped up his sermon, Simmons asked the crowd to swap stories about Brendan among themselves. They complied and told stories -- like the one Roetman-Cramer later related about a Christmas Eve she spent with Brendan and her son Jason in a Valley bar.

Toward the end of the night, Brendan turned to her, slammed his beer down and, in a determined voice, asked her to tell him about his father.

In the light of the bar she looked at him and saw something she hadn't noticed before. Somewhere, either while he was in the service or after, Brendan had grown into the spitting image of his father.

"It was like Danny was sitting there," she said. "Brendan," she told him at the time, "you've turned into your dad."

Reporter Andrew Wellner can be reached at awellner@adn.com or by calling 907-352-6710.